Archan Sangkom Thongmee, a high school art teacher from Loei, rural northern Thailand, is showing how to teach art to build students' confidence and creativity. He is also spearheading a drive to make this sort of art teaching a regular part of Thailand's curriculum.
Archan Sangkom Thongmee was born in Ubol Rajathani Province in 1953. He grew up in Loei Province, and received two scholarships to go to university. Sangkom received bachelor's and master's degrees in art education from Chulalongkorn University, and in 1989 was awarded an honorary master's degree in liberal arts from Ramkhamhaeng University. He has taught art in Loei Province for 11 years, gradually developing his approach. Among the many honors he has received, he was named Distinguished Person of the Year by Chulalongkorn University and Best Art Teacher by Thairath Newspapers and the Thai Cement Company.
Sangkom has developed new methods for teaching young rural Thai students how to conceive and then create powerful and artistic paintings and drawings. He has specifically designed his approach for rural children, an overwhelming population in Loei and, in fact, in the country. Such children have been brought up in an environment that does not stimulate creativity and that commonly leaves youngsters uncertain and reluctant when faced with the unfamiliar. Sangkom believes that an education in art will give his students skills that will be useful to them in many other areas. They will develop better concentration, intellectual discipline, creativity, and self-assurance, which will help them mature and develop the ability to express their ideas and capabilities more confidently. Sangkom has developed an approach that allows most rural children to reach a realm where they can feel free and exercise their imaginations. Sangkom encourages his students to respect and take this atmosphere seriously. There is a gallery that displays children's art, the work of current students and many current and former national and international prizewinners Sangkom helped nurture. The children examine the art and learn to appreciate and criticize it. Teachers are available to discuss the art or a student's own work. Sangkom's approach helps each youngster as his or her work progresses from stage to stage. He teaches them the principles of art as well as various styles and techniques (such as color and shading). He builds in incentives by putting their works on display or entering them in contests. For young people not even in school, he has special programs that apply art to potentially valuable economic uses such as furniture design, a type of work especially welcome to families and community. The results are extraordinary. Over the last decade, Sangkom's students have won over two thousand international art competitions. He uses the proceeds to build up a scholarship fund that helps his students continue in school and go on to university. This performance also gives Sangkom's approach great credibility. He is using that credibility both to spread what he has learned about using art to bring out children's various capacities and also to change the country's attitude towards the importance of art in the schools. He is also capitalizing on his success to build a national league of like-minded art teachers.
Most of Thailand, like much of Asia, has an educational system that emphasizes rote memorization. The goal is to absorb information imparted to one, not to learn to question or solve problems, and certainly not to imagine. The schools are not alone. Society, and especially rural society, still values maintaining received patterns and relationships more than innovation. Social and family role models and penalties and rewards all tend in the same direction. For many it is difficult even to understand Sangkom's broad goals. These mental frameworks are not only a big part of the problem Sangkom seeks to fix, but they also underpin most of the difficulties he faces in trying to do so. Thus, especially in rural areas, many people feel that art is a special talent that not everyone has and that it is therefore a waste to attempt to teach it to every student. Farmers are especially skeptical of art's value for their children. Even if these attitudes were suddenly overcome, the schools now have neither the art curriculum or the resources to do what Sangkom wants. Thailand's educational system was designed for urban schools and often doesn't take into account the different needs of rural students with their different background, economic status, living conditions, and values. Rural art teachers must make these adaptations themselves. Furthermore, the schools generally have insufficient funds to improve the overall art curriculum or provide the basic supplies. Sangkom has often had to use his meager teacher's salary to pay for his students' pencils and paints.
Although Sangkom continues to develop his educational approach, his chief objective is to make sure that what he has already developed reaches the many young people across Thailand who could benefit. The association of art teachers that he is building provides a network of colleagues who can help him sharpen his approach, and the allies who will push for more demonstrations in the country's several regions. The more effective the models of quality art education, the faster the approach will spread. Hundreds of visitors already flock to the school where Sangkom teaches to observe his methods of teaching and learn about the new artistic activities he has created for the students. Sangkom wants to set up workshops where art teachers and experts and others involved in art or teaching can share their own methods and ideas and discuss the problems they have in order to seek new, improved techniques of teaching and learning. In addition to the immediate benefits that art teachers will bring away with them to their classrooms, Sangkom will study the conclusions of the workshops and the needs of the teachers. He'll also invite experienced artists and teachers to the gallery to help create new teaching media that will fill gaps in the current array of teaching resources. Sangkom plans to strengthen this process further by building at his school a gallery which will be a focus for the development of Thailand's national art curriculum. The gallery will show children's art, including annual exhibits of works of Thai and foreign children. It will also provide a place for permanent display of his students' art. Additionally, the gallery will host and organize teaching seminars on the problems of developing course curricula, teaching art classes and working on students' projects, and creating new teaching activities and media to be used in the schools. Local people will also use the center for recreational art. Although he would prefer to work more in his native Northeast, Sangkom has recently begun to teach Thailand's revered royal family one day a week. The standing this investment gives him and his work makes him bear the long commute gracefully.